Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Insanity -- Joseph Lynch


"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Albert Einstein

My head pounded like a steel spike was imbedded deep into my forehead. I managed to open my eyes a sliver against the morning light. Sprawled in a small bedroom, the bureau, dresser, and bookcase all of inexpensive wood veneer appeared familiar. A closet, its door ajar, revealed a bright peach blouse with a ruffled front. An image of a woman with bright blue accusing eyes formed in my mind - Naomi. Her name brought me peace. I had made it home.

I lay as if dead hoping to slip back into the bliss of unconsciousness but the pain kept me in the land of the living and brought the usual host of annoyances: nausea, thirst and the shakes. Like any veteran drinker, I bore these well as I could but I never got used to the unnamed fear and wanted to hide from it.

There are those that have complete blackouts and remember nothing and only learn of their escapades from a third party. I am not so lucky. For the most part, I only lose snatches of the evening. Most of it comes back as if I’m in a dream and usually the dream is a nightmare.
I allowed myself to descend past the throbbing pain. The last clear memory I had was leaving the firehouse yesterday. It had to be about six. Naomi wasn’t going to be home for dinner. She was going to her parents to tell them about the new baby. So I decided to stop at McKenna’s to take a sandwich home. I had promised Naomi I wouldn’t get drunk. And I had no intention of having even one drink. But all day long, I had been thinking about the roast beef sandwiches at McKenna’s. McKenna’s roast beef sandwiches are famous throughout the neighborhood. I just wanted a sandwich and then I wouldn’t have to cook for myself. It started to come back:

I was at the “to go” section of the bar. I watched as the cook sliced a healthy portion from the side of beef, placed it on a thick slice of Italian bread, topped it with a wedge of sharp provolone and added another piece of bread to top it. The cook then took tongs and dipped the whole thing in a pot of gravy and began to wrap it in butcher paper. I stopped him. “I changed my mind. I’ll have it here.” I said. The cook shrugged, slid the sandwich from the wax paper onto a plate as if he had done it a thousand times, added a knife and fork handed it to me along with a bill. I took it to an open section at the bar, sat down tossed a twenty up and a bar maid came over. She was in her mid-thirties and more than a little overweight. Her dirty blonde hair was pinned up but starting to break loose from the strain of the day. She kept brushing back a few loose strands from in front of her face.

“What are you having?” She asked. “A draft of Michelob,” “You want me to take out for the sandwich too.” “Yeah, but I’m only staying for the one. I was going to take the sandwich home but I hate eating alone.”

“Yeah sure,” she mumbled. I was taken with the artistic way she tilted the frozen mug, letting the beer pour down the side and then righting it as it neared the top so that there was only an inch or so of head. The beer looked perfect. I got butterflies as she placed it on the coaster. It went down quickly. I decided to have another because I hadn’t finished my sandwich. I noticed the second was gone and heard a voice saying, “I’ll have another.” I didn’t realize the voice was mine until she put the mug in front of me.

At some point she said, “Hey, I thought you were only having one?” She smiled as she put down the mug. “I was until I noticed how good you looked walking back and forth behind that bar.” She blushed, picked up the money and walked away without comment. I watched the wonderful way her ass, with just a hint of jiggle, moved in her tight black slacks as she went to the cash register. She turned and glanced back at me after putting the money in the till. It was obvious she was flirting with me.

The rest of the night was like a dream. It came in images: playing darts for shots and beers; arguing with some black guy about whether the dart was in the cork; in the parking lot with the barmaid and not letting her close her car door, her face red and angry or maybe just scared. I remember falling and her driving off calling me an “asshole” back in the bar another barmaid and me slamming an empty mug on the bar to get her attention – and the rest of the night was just gone.

Oh, I’m such an asshole – such a fucking asshole. I thought.

I rolled to get up but it alerted Bacchus. The Peek-a-poo came bounding into the room, leapt on the bed and danced around me nipping and licking at my face. His high pitch bark proved too much and I plopped back down pulling a pillow over my head. There was no escaping him. He burrowed his head under the pillow like a gopher. I sat up and whacked at him with the pillow.
“Get the fuck down you crazed canine,” I grabbed my temples in reaction to the ache my yelling aggravated. He bounded back up and was at my face again. I gave up, shuffled down the narrow hallway past the overflowing hamper and into the bathroom, and closed the door to keep him out.

I emptied my bladder and then climbed into the tub, standing under the shower long enough to adjust the water and then just plopped down. The stream poured over my head. I formed a cup with my hands, placed it under my lips and let the warm water stream into my parched mouth. It was wonderful. I took it in long gluttonous gulps. I alternated bending my head down so that the water would run over the back of my aching skull and neck, and picking it back up so that I could drink my fill. The water turned the excruciating pain to a dull throb. I folded my arms across my chest, bowed my head and started to rock.

Then I remembered the car and the dread that had been hovering, pounced and overwhelmed me. I didn’t know how I got home. I had to find the car. Fuck it! I can’t go through this again. I can just get a razor and let the water carry it all down the drain.

I got up and moved before my thoughts got worse, threw some clothes on, grabbed the keys and headed down the stairs. Peeking from the living room window I spied my station wagon three doors down and breathed a little easier. The car was half on the pavement but at least I got it home. I stepped outside. The sun and air of the late morning seemed surreal. I wanted only to repark the car and slink back into the house. Then I noticed a dent to the front quarter panel and, upon closer inspection, not only a dent but a smashed headlight and an ominous looking red streak against the white paint.

Fuck, Naomi had to have seen the damage on her way to church with Megan. I squatted down spit on my finger and rubbed hard on the three inch long red streak. It turned brownish, like blood. My knees went weak and my heart hammered away in my ears. I dropped and hid behind the car, scanned and rescanned the street. I was safe. Not even the curtains on the front window of nosy Mrs. Crawford’s house moved. I jumped into the car and drove.

Brian and I had been probies together when we first got out of fire school. We were at different stations now. He was a know it all and got on my nerves a lot but we stayed friends. Brian had a garage and I wanted my car out of sight. He would help. It was part of the unwritten firefighters’ code. We take of our brother or sister firefighters whether we’re running into burning buildings or not.

“What did you say happened?” Brian was standing by my car sipping a cup of coffee.

“A deer ran into the side.”

“In the city?”

“Yeah, they’re all over the place along Henry Ave.”

“What did the cops say?”

“Well I had a few and didn’t want to stop.”

“A few?” Brian raised an eyebrow.

“Well, maybe more than a few.”

“I’ll bet. You look like shit and your breath smells like a distillery. Are you sure that’s what happened.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Just let me keep it in your garage until I can get the money together to get it fixed. I don’t want to turn it into the insurance. They’ll raise my rates and the people on my street are a pain in the ass, if I leave it there, they’ll complain.” I explained.

“Yeah sure, but I’ll have to move some stuff to make room. Listen! brother or not, get it out of here as soon as you can, or Patti will be on my shit.”

“No problem, it shouldn’t be but a couple of days. I just have to figure my money situation.”

“Okay, let me get straightened the garage up a little. I’ll pull my car out. You pull your car in and I’ll give you a ride home.”

“How’s things at your station.” Brian asked on the ride home.

“Okay, we’re getting plenty of work.”

“There are rumors that your Lieutenant ain’t real happy with you.”

“Well that’s bullshit. I came in late one time and he gave me a bunch of shit. He’s a stickler for the rules but when we get a job he can’t keep up with me.”

“I don’t know Jess, I heard it was more than once and he had to send you home sick one day because you were still wasted from the night before.”

“And I’m telling you its bullshit. Everything gets blown out of proportion by the rumor mill.”

“Maybe the story did get blown out of proportion. But your car is smashed. Maybe if you were hitting on all cylinders you would’ve been able to get out of the way of that deer.”

He kept talking but most of it wasn’t registering with me. I was looking in the side view mirror. A cop had been following us for several blocks. Then the cop put on his flashers, and I went inside myself again. I was thinking three or four or maybe a hundred things at the same time, thinking of an alibi, seeing myself in handcuffs, watching Megan cry. He flew past us, went through the next light and made a left turn. I slumped in the seat like a used up bar rag.

“I guess he needed a donut.” Brian said with an irritating smirk.

“Yeah,” I tried to smile.

“You look bad man. I’m telling you give up the firewater, stick with beer. You’ll be better off.” He pulled in front of the house. I jumped out glad to be home. My head hurt and I had suffered through way too much Brian’s senseless fucking drivel.

Megan greeted me like father of the year. She abandoned her toys, her curly brown hair bouncing as she ran to me. Throwing her arms around my legs, she squealed “DADDY!” I picked her up and gave her a peck on the lips. She was light in my arms and holding her made my spirit light too. She was just so perfect. She had Naomi’s piercing blue eyes but the dark skin and curly mane of my mother. She hugged my neck tight as I held her in the crook of my arm. Bacchus joined in the reunion, dancing at my feet. And then Naomi came striding in from the kitchen, spatula still in hand, making her way between the table and the breakfront of the tiny dining room and into the living room. She got right in my face.

“Where were you and what happened to my car?” She fumed.

“Well, hi nice to see you today, too.”

Megan was mumbling in my ear. “Daddy did you break the car?”

“Knock it off, Jesse – You promised you weren’t going to drink.”

“No, I promised I wasn’t going to get drunk.”

“You don’t think you were drunk? You’re freaking unbelievable. You should’ve seen yourself last night. It’s a miracle you made home. You should get down on your knees and thank God he kept you safe.”

“I know I messed up but…”

“You know you messed up, so what. Who pays the price? I do. I can’t sleep right. I stay up saying the rosary for your safe return. I can’t take this anymore. You could’ve at least called.”

“I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry. I got involved in a dart game at McKenna’s and lost track of time.”

“You’re always sorry. I’m tired of it.” She paused and folded her arms. They rested on her stomach which made her early pregnancy seemed more pronounced. The spatula in her right beat an angry rhythm in the air. “What happened to the car?” Her tone reminded me of my mother. “I don’t know. When I came out from McKenna’s it was like that. I guess someone hit it while I was inside.” I shrugged. “You don’t know or you don’t remember?” Her head bobbed from side to side and her hair thick brown hair to dance on her shoulders. Her blue eyes bulged like missiles from her rage and all I could think was how beautiful it made her look.

“Of course, I remember. It was like that when I came out. I wouldn’t lie.”

“Where is it now?

“I put it in Brian’s garage until I can get it fixed.”

“That doesn’t make any sense – turn it in to the insurance company, that’s what we pay insurance for.”

“No, by the time we pay the deductible and then they’ll raise our rates it’ll be more in the long run. I’ll get Tony from the station to help and we’ll do it.” I thought of the car and the night before and I wished I could just live it all over again. “I’m really sorry” I said. “I’m going to stop. I mean it this time.” I had to brush away the tears that welled up in my eyes.

“You must be hungry.” She said. “I’m making some eggs do you want some.” The anger had left her face replaced by a look of disappointing resignation. It wasn’t nearly as attractive.

I did as I had promised Naomi and stopped drinking. I guess it was as much for me as for her. I was dying inside. I spent the next few days scouring the paper and watching the news looking for a word of a hit and run. If I heard a knock at the door or if the phone rang, a shiver would run through my body. It was like there was too much emotion for my body and my insides were going to explode. I think being without booze made the anxiety worse. My hands trembled like birds in the snow. I didn’t sleep much but if I did, I’d wake startled in a cold sweat. I kept thinking about the blood on the car. I obsessed on it. I spent most of my time staring out the front window, trapped in my head.

I dreamed about the accident one night and it scared the shit out of me. In my dream, I was in my car on Henry Ave. and pissy drunk. An old guy was walking on the shoulder of the road. He had glasses and a cane and moved with a limp. I saw him fine but the car kept going towards him. I kept pulling the wheel to the left. I know I was pulling the wheel to the left because even when you’re drunk you know if you’re pulling the wheel to the left but the car wouldn’t go left. It kept going towards him. He saw the car coming and hobbled to try to get past the metal guard rail to an open field. He got to the guard rail and sat on it. I guess because of his bad leg he was just going to sit on the rail and let himself fall to the other side. He looked right at me when he was sitting there. His eyes looked real scared in the headlights and then everything went in slow motion. His face got big. So big I could see the pores of his skin and the way his lip quivered in fear. I tried to hit the brakes because the wheel wasn’t turning but I couldn’t get my foot down and then at the last minute the car did turn a little so I didn’t smash right into him but I hit the rail with the front bumper and I heard a noise like when the subway is going around a sharp curve. Then my dream jumped and I was the one on the side of the road and he was standing over me with blood all over his face and he was poking me with his cane and calling me a drunk.

I awoke with a sick feeling in my stomach. The images in the dream were more real than the clock I laid staring at. I curled up and just lay there a long time waiting for the fear to pass. When I couldn’t take my head anymore, I jumped up got in the car and searched the length of Henry Ave. It had to be after three A.M. because by then I was really thinking about a drink but none of the bars were open. I never did find a spot that looked like the one in the dream. I don’t know if that made me feel better or worse.

I managed not to drink for a couple of weeks but it wasn’t easy. If I wasn’t at work, I stayed home. I had this fear. I guess it was a fear that if I went out I’d drink but I had this nameless fear as well. It was like a fear of everything or maybe it was a fear of nothing. I don’t know how else to explain it.

Somehow, I managed to get by in work. I don’t know why but the shakes weren’t too bad while I was working. Maybe it was because I stayed focused on taking care of the truck and equipment to keep out of my head. The other guys noticed something was wrong. They kept bugging me, asking what was going on with me. I’d just shrug my shoulders; tell them I was on the wagon and having a hard time. They’d try to keep talking to me. Often offering suggestions on what I should do but the anxiety built as they were speaking and I’d just walk away. It was kind of ignorant but it was as if I had an animal moving inside me while they talked and I just had to get away.

Things were bad at home too. I was in my head most of the time and for the first few days the shakes were bad. Naomi and Megan were there but I lived by myself. They were only on the periphery of my awareness. I remember being in the living room when I heard Naomi call Megan away from me. “Come in the kitchen with me and leave daddy alone.” She said. “He doesn’t feel good.” It was only after Naomi called her that I realized Megan had been tapping on my leg, saying, “Daddy,” trying to get my attention. It made me feel guilty and gave me something else to obsess on.

I think Naomi sensed how hard I was trying and tried to make it easy for me. She said not a word about me not doing chores around the house which next to my drinking was our most frequent cause of argument. She even went so far as to turn off the vacuum when I walked into the living room and put some gentle jazz on the stereo and only went back to vacuuming when I wandered off into another room. I appreciated what Naomi was doing but I was too stuck inside my head to express it.

The shakes came back hard when I thought about the car languishing in Brian’s garage but I couldn’t help not thinking about it. Despite how crazy it made me, I couldn’t get myself past the fear to deal with it. The issue was forced, however, when Brian’s wife, Patti the Bitch, called and left a message that I had three days to do something about it or she was going to have it towed. Tony the one guy at the station I was still friends with agreed to help me with the car. Tony had been a body and fender man before and he came onto the department and still tinkered with cars and pretty much anything else with a motor. He was the kind of guy that always had grease under his nails and was always happy to lend a hand.

Brian and Patti weren’t home but they left the key to the garage for us. The car looked eerie in the darkened garage, like someone I had known a long time ago. Tony flicked on the lights and went right to where the damage was. He bent over the scrape. His black stingy hair hung in his face. He started scraping at the red mark with his finger. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder.

“What did you say happened?”

“A- A deer ran into the side.”

“Was it driving a red car?”

“What do you mean?”

“This isn’t blood. It’s red paint. You should know what blood looks like.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure, dickhead. This ain’t even all that bad. We don’t have to fix it here. You can drive it home and we can fix it in the parking lot at the fire house when we get some down time. You just need a new headlight. I can pull the dent out and compound the scratch.

Being back behind the wheel of the car felt strange but there was something else too, like I was trying to remember something that I was missing until I realized the fear was all but gone. It kept trying to come back but now I had power over it. I began to breath slow and deep and smile once in awhile.

Naomi was thrilled. I’m not sure if it was because I told her the car would be fixed in a day or two or if she sensed something different about me. I sensed something different about myself. The fear was gone and the shakes were gone with it. We had a steak dinner that night. I can’t remember when I enjoyed a meal so much. I read a story to Megan before putting her to bed. I had forgotten how enchanting her laughter could be. I appreciated maybe for the first time how good a sober life could be.

We were slow at the firehouse and managed to get the car fixed the very next day. I stopped for just one at McKenna’s after work. I had butterflies as I brought it to my lips. I can’t begin to explain how great it felt washing those butterflies away along with everything else that had built up inside over the past few weeks. I reasoned I could have one more and still get home in time for dinner. I kept a picture of reading a story to Megan as she lay in bed to keep my motivation.
After about the sixth, I asked about the barmaid with cute jiggling rear-end. After that, I remember very little of the night. When I managed to get my eyes opened in the morning, I was sprawled on the floor of a cell.

Photo Credit: Mark Cummins on Flickr

About the author: Joseph Lynch

Joe Lynch is just another drunk trying to get another day (of sobriety) while living in the city of "Brotherly Love". He honed his writing skill in the Rosemont College MFA program and continues to write to keep the demons at bay. He is not always successful with the demons but he has been successful in getting published. Among others, his story Indian Summer is due out any day in the winter edition of "Sunken Lines" and The Screaming Place will be published by "Morpheus Tales" in October of this year.